Eurada News nº402 - July 2020

Refugee and migrant enterprise as an example of social innovation

The note looks at creating economic  opportunities for refugees and migrants, as an example of social innovation, with specific focus on small business support. It is also impossible not to assess the impact of the Covid19 crisis in this context. It identifies key reasons why social innovation is an important driver for economic development at local and regional level.

ACH is a leading provider of integration support for refugees and migrants which was set up ten years ago largely by people from refugee backgrounds. It employs around 80 people and works directly with 3000 people per year offering housing and access to economic opportunity through training and career support and through small business development. ACH is based in Bristol, South West England and also works in the West Midlands region too.  Despite Brexit, ACH is keen to work with international partners.

The note looks at creating economic  opportunities for refugees and migrants, as an example of social innovation, with specific focus on small business support. It is also impossible not to assess the impact of the Covid19 crisis in this context. It identifies key reasons why social innovation is an important driver for economic development at local and regional level.


Social innovation takes place where demographic, social and cultural changes are embedded in the development process both for the benefit of the individual entities and the wider community. Those regions which are ahead of the curve in terms of capturing social innovation will gain competitive advantage as well as secure a greater level of social cohesion and integration.

The ACH approach is to follow a business case perspective which sees refugees and migrants not only as individuals who have needs but also as assets who can play a significant role in the development process to the  wider benefit of the economy. Many are not able to enter the labour market at all or are channelled into entry level and or precarious work. We find that around 25% see small business development as a vehicle for opportunity so bringing an important source of entrepreneurship and innovation with new products, services, processes and market niches.

The impact of migration is very likely here to stay. Most assessments suggest that population movements will continue to rise, reflecting global conflicts, economic inequality and climate change The last 20 years has seen huge population movements in most parts of the world. This included those  seeking asylum as refugees escaping persecution (for example from Syria), migrants moving from countries with few economic opportunities and also suffering from climate change. In addition, within the European Union we have seen large numbers move, especially from new member states, to find new work in other member states through freedom of movement.

Some 47.3 million people living in the EU, or 9.4% of the total populationhad been born outside their resident country At a more local level, in Bristol, the proportion of the population of the city not born in the UK rose to 15% over a ten year period meaning more than 60 000 people in the city moved from abroad. The largest communities in this regard were those of Somali origin and those from Poland, both around 15 – 20 000 people but with a huge diversity of other communities. How can we use this for the benefit of local and regional development?

ACH  worksat grass roots level with entrepreneurs from refugee and migrant communities and together with the existing business support eco-system. The aim is to create pathways for both the entrepreneurs to access business support and resources, and for mainstream organisations to engage with new communities. With a focus on SME’s this has enabled us to establish the key issues, barriers and reasons for blocked mobility for migrant business owners, as well as their motivations.

A significant point to note is that of ‘forced entrepreneurship’. Many individuals struggle to complete complex job application forms, or face prejudice at sifting or interview stage when trying to gain employment. Unsuccessful, they are then forced to engage in precarious work and self-employment pertained to the gig economy

David Jebson

David Jepson

Entrepreneurship by choice, rather than forced or by ‘default’, does also frequently occur. Refugee and migrant business owners are renowned problem solvers, innovative and entrepreneurial by nature. Yet they still face blocked access to some mainstream support enabling start-up and growth. There is a slight shift change in this arena; however, some players are still slow to consider their responsibility. We would welcome for them to realise the great benefits refugee and migrant entrepreneurship carries to the region. By increasing their understanding of different communities, the existing business support eco-system can play a large part in the solution. Assisting innovative growth of SME’s owned by refugee and migrant entrepreneurs should be included within their priorities. Specific problems include lack of access to none debt finance, lack of social capital and social networks as well as the regulatory framework. The “business model” can also be a problem where emphasis in unduly placed on social enterprise to the neglect of key drivers for small business success such as profitability and cash flow management.

Lydia Samuel

The Covid19 lockdown has also had both short term and longer term impacts on refugee and migrant businesses. Such enterprises are often concentrated in sectors which have been worse hit by the crisis, such as hospitality and transport whilst many are in activities that cannot be undertaken through remote working. Often such businesses have lacked the financing and the social capital and networks needed to respond quickly to changes in consumer needs. Yet refugee and migrant businesses are flexible and adaptable and can play a key role in the recovery if given the right support.

Development Agencies can play a major role in capturing social innovation such as refugee and migrant enterprise as a tool for development.  They have the potential to bring together different stakeholders such the NGO sector, employers organisations, training organisations and others to ensure the synergy needed to offer the necessary support to improve the environment for such businesses. This way new employment, incomes, innovation, products and services will be introduced and social integration enhanced.

  • ACH offer a half day workshop to undertake an initial assessment of the refugee and migrant enterprise sector for policy makers and researchers.

Written by David Jepson, Director and Policy Advisor for ACH and member of Eminence Gris Club of Eurada, and Lydia Samuel, Entrepreneurship Coordinator at ACH